This end of the year, and beginning of the new year, have been fantastic. We traveled to a south pacific island destination that was haunting me for some time already: Vanuatu. Why Vanuatu? Two major reasons, first it’s only 2.5hours from Brisbane with direct flights and you can find one of the most accessible active and erupting volcanos in the world. Thing I was dreaming about checking off my bucket list. Second, Vanuatu is an amazing base for diving and is quite untouched, underdeveloped, wild, tropical and safe destination that is off the usual beaten track. We were not deceived!
A bit of history for Vanuatu
Vanuatu was previously named New Hebrides by captain James Cook in 1774 until the country obtained its independence in 1981 from the France&British administration. The country was transformed as an important American base during the WWII hosting over 200 000 American soldiers at the peak of the war time. Although many dialects are spoken by the different villages and tribes on the several island of Vanuatu, Bislama, English and French are spoken languages. Vanuatu has a tropical climate and over 80% of the population lives in rural, isolated villages (where Adam&Eve costume are quite usual) that sustain themselves through fishing and with basic agriculture from the their own community gardens and food supplies.
The initial plan for Vanuatu was to backpack through the country and visit 3 different Islands: Efate, Espiritu Santo and Tanna using the Vanuatu AirPass I’ve bought in Australia. This promotion permitted 4 domestic flights for 425$ with Air Vanuatu. Thus, the plan was to arrive in Vanuatu on the 23rd at night with a direct flight from Brisbane. Next morning travel to Santo for 4 nights, then back in Port Vila for 4 nights, fly in Tanna on the 1st of January and back in Port Vila on the 5th and finally back in Brisbane on the 6th in the evening.
Few activities that we absolutely wanted to do were: diving (SS Coolidge, Hideaway island), kayaking, snorkeling, blue holes, hiking, bush walking, exploring cascades and waterfalls, seeing Kastom village, staying in a remote village, discovering local culture, and of course, observing the power of Mt Yasur volcano.
23/12/2012: We arrived at the airport around 6:00pm on the 23rd. Third time in 3 consecutive months there passing immigration, security, etc. Flight was short, only 2.5 hours. Arrived in Port Vila, we went straight by taxi at our motel, City Lodge. The city was quiet, 1 am and it was hot outside. At a first glance, the place looked a bit awkward. We were shown our room for the night. Room was okay until we start the ceiling fan to cool the place. It felt like the fan was going to spin off its socket and crash over our head into the night. The good news is it never happened, however it took some time before I could sleep. Tiredness finally kick-in and we could forget about the noise and the warmth of the place.
24/12/2012: The next morning, we got woken up quite early, 7am. The buzzing city market was striving with people and local island music. We got up our feet and ready to explore our host country. The day was still young but the place was already really alive. The local market was dazzling with local fresh products, fruits, veggies. No plastic bags there, baskets were made out of meticulously made with leaves.
We walked and stopped at a waterfront cafe, the Nambawan Cafe (read in English “Number One”), where we had a nice breakfast. We headed back to the motel to pick our bags to get to the airport. We took the local bus, 250 vatu each one way (2.5$). Quite cheaper than the taxi. Drivers are really friendly and like making conversation. At the airport, we were advised that the flight was delayed because of a mechanical problem with the aircraft. An hour after, the flight was once again delayed for another 2 hours. It was hard to know what was going on, unless you go try to find a staff member and ask yourself what was going on. The flight was suppose to go to Tanna, then come back to Port Vila and then go to Espiritu Santo…. Face to the chaos of the place, the warmth and the lack of proper seats we decided to head back to the city (15min away). We went on a small beach near the big cruise ship. We just layed down and stayed there for 2 hours.
I called back Air Vanuatu twice to finally learn that our flight was cancelled and I had to head back to the airport to make arrangement. We spend another 2 hours in the chaos with the absence of Air Vanuatu staff to inform passengers of what was going on. Pretty poor management I would have to say. Probably they just wanted people to go away so they didn’t had to care for them and make arrangement. It worked because some people chartered their own flight for over 300$. We waited. I had to enter the staff area to speak with someone and get them my names. We waited more. People were getting really frustrated and irritated or the absence of leadership from Air Vanuatu. Finally, we were told we were going to be placed for the night at the Holiday Inn at the cost of Air Vanuatu, a pretty nice ressort (if not the best) in Port Vila (300$ a night). Our flight was rescheduled the next day at 23:55pm, quite a bad time to fly-in especially when our booking in Santo was 1hour away from the “city” in a rural area… Anyway, we went to the ressort and we quickly forgot our despair. We had an excellent dinner with a nice bottle of wine (I paid for this tho) and went to bed early.
25/12/2012: After a very good night of sleep and an excellent breakfast, we booked a tour to Lelepa Island. A small island accessible by a 25min bus ride + 20min boat ride. This was the place where the famous American show Survivor was filmed back in 2004.
Albert our guide was very friendly, informative and proud of this place where he grew up. He explained how his village, his community were living and surviving on this small island. From herbal plant used as medicine, hunting and fishing to how people use cavern and other things to shelter from cyclone. We walked through the island to the west of the Island on a nice beach. We snorkeled there for a good 3 hours, one of my favorite spot ever. The water was turquoise, warm, crystal clear and very calm. The visibility was incredible and the marine life was very attractive. Fishes, corals, reefs. Among others, we found nemo!
We ate lunch there and I’ve met by pure coincidence another guy from Quebec city that was living in Sydney. Always impress to find people that can relate quite closely to you in such remote place of this world, but this honestly happened very often in my life now. From the jungle of Peru, to going to a marathon at 4am in Brisbane to now Lelepa island, Quebecers are everywhere! We then visited a cavern where it is locally believed that the spirit of the people from this village this inhabit the cave. Albert, speaking about local believes, made the joke of letting the tourist go first while the other guide was already inside preparing dinner. We had a good laugh as this was relating to the fact that cannibalism was practiced in Vanuatu until 1940.
We visited the local village where people live in pretty basic condition and then headed back by boat to the main island and then back to the resort.
There was a note under our door saying our flight was once again delayed by 2 hours to 1:30am arriving in Espiritu Santo at 2:30am and that we needed to call Air Vanuatu to make arrangement. Yeah right, wait to go… How I am suppose to find transport in such a place at 2:30am on Christmas day while my booking was still another hour away from Luganville. I called Air Vanuatu at the number provided and wait in line for more than an hour until we decided we had enough and went to the hotel reception. We heard other people had made arrangement to delay their flight for the next day at 6pm but there was no way we could reach anyone at Air Vanuatu. The receptionist at the hotel was helpful and knew the personal mobile number of the manager and she called him on our behalf. I spoke with Greg (manager) and he told me Air Vanuatu office were close at that time!!!! Wow! Nice to know after waiting more than an hour on the phone for nothing. We could still organise with him to re-booked our flight to the next day 6pm and enjoy the resort one more day. However, we were quite deceived too because we would have only 1 full day in Santo instead of 4! It was not possible anymore to go diving the SS Coolidge 🙁 For info, you can’t fly for 24 hours if you go diving. Anyway, it was now 9:30pm, we were hungry and it was more than time to get our Christmas dinner.
26/12/2012: We woke up late on this boxing day. We planned nothing special for this day except enjoying what the resort and surrounding had to offer. We went out kayaking for 2 hours on the beautiful blue lagoon. Paddling on this blue lagoon and river was very enjoyable even though it was a really hot day. As we paddled down the shallow river, we passed hundreds of starfishes. The were easy to spot from the surface because the water was shallow and very clear. We reached Erakor Island, a little paradise where we knew we would spend 2 days later on the 28 and 29 of December.
We went back to the resort and just relaxed for the rest of the day until we got picked up at 4pm for our flight to Santo. At our great surprise, the flight was almost on time. Arrived in Santo, we directly went to our hotel, The Espiritu for the night. The hotel was deserted on this public holidays and everything was really quiet outside except the thunderstorm that passed on us. No restaurant were open, nothing. We simply went buying some cookies and drinks and we went back for some planning as we had only one day to spend in Santo. Sadly, we had to leave the idea of doing great activities (Millennium Cave, Diving, visiting Kastom village, Port Orly, blue holes, etc).
To be continued soon in part II … 🙂
Pascal & Gabriela